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SXSWedu: A MOOC Love Fest

Massive open online courses will change higher education, say Coursera and edX execs, pointing to some free online classes from top universities drawing 100,000 students.

Educational 'Technology' Across the Ages
Educational 'Technology' Across the Ages
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Massive open online courses (MOOCs) will not replace universities but will force them to rethink how they educate their students, leaders of two of the leading MOOCs predicted at this week's SXSWedu conference.

Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng appeared with edX President Anant Agarwal on a keynote panel moderated by Laura Pappano, The New York Times reporter who declared The Year of the MOOC in a November article. It was one of the best attended events of the conference on educational technology and innovation, a spin off of the South by Southwest conference. MOOCs have attracted attention for making courses taught by professors from top universities available online, for free, in a format that allows enrollments sometimes topping 100,000 students per course.

"I'm absolutely thrilled to be involved in this very cool event around education," Pappano said enthusiastically. "And how wonderful is it that so many people are so pumped up around education?" She said she found it a refreshing change after many years of covering education. At the same time, she felt obliged to ask whether MOOCs were the subject of too much hype.

[ Tablets share MOOCs' spotlight as the new darlings of education. Read Higher Education Tech Forecast Sees MOOC, Tablet Momentum.]

"Absolutely, there's been too much hype -- and what a good idea!" Agarwal said. "If you and your colleagues have to hype something, what better to hype than education? For the first time, you're going to make the teacher a rock star."

Ng said he is inspired to change the reality in which "a great education is only available to the elite and the privileged -- I would love to live in a world where that is no longer the case, where everyone has access to a great education." This was one of several lines he delivered that drew enthusiastic applause from the SXSWedu crowd.

Already the largest MOOC, Coursera nearly doubled its number of university partners recently, to 62. Ng, a Stanford professor whose machine learning course is one of Coursera's most popular offerings, co-founded the company after experimenting with the MOOC format at Stanford. Agarwal is an MIT professor whose edX course on circuits and electronics has also been an online hit. In a bit of good-natured banter, Agarwal countered Coursera's claim of being the largest by calling edX "the quality leader." Where Coursera is a company, edX is organized as a non-profit backed by MIT and Harvard, with 12 universities now participating.

MOOCs are "different from the old-style online courses that were more like correspondence courses," given their massive scale and "new cool tools to help you learn and give feedback in discussion forums," Pappano said. Unlike those more traditional offerings, however, MOOCs are only starting to carve out a path to being recognized for college credit.

MOOCs have had to innovate to address challenges such as the grading of essays because it's impractical for an instructor to handle written homework from thousands of students. Some of the mathematics, science, and technology topics where MOOCs first gained a foothold lend themselves better to multiple choice assessments that can be computer graded.

However, as Ng explained, if you try to convince a professor of poetry to use multiple choice scoring "he will invite you to exit his office." So as Coursera has expanded to offer courses in the humanities, it has had to develop techniques for peer grading -- along with ways of testing proficiency in grading before students are allowed to evaluate each other's work, he said.

Agarwal said there have also been pleasant surprises, such as the quality of discussion in the online forums for each course. When his first high-enrollment course launched, he at first thought he and his teaching assistants would have to be chained to their desks answering student questions. Then he noticed that as he was about to intervene in the discussion, "before I could complete an answer, there was an answer from a student in Pakistan. Then, as I was thinking this answer wasn't quite right, before I could correct it someone popped in to answer it … and as instructor, I blessed it as the right answer." This peer-to-peer interaction amounts to "a social network, applied for learning," he said.

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